MOBILE, Ala. — More than anything, the recent changes Sean McDermott made to his coaching staff came down to a gut feeling about where the Buffalo Bills were headed after his second season as their head coach.
It was the kind of thing, as he explained Tuesday, that literally poked him awake.
McDermott concluded a shakeup was needed with the offensive line and special teams coaching spots, resulting in Bobby Johnson replacing Juan Castillo as O-line coach and Heath Farwell replacing Danny Crossman as special-teams coordinator. It also led to the dismissal of Terry Robiskie as wide receivers coach, although offensive assistant Chad Hall appears in line to be promoted as Robiskie’s replacement.
“I feel like we're heading in a certain direction as an organization and I felt like I wasn't necessarily satisfied in those other three areas,” McDermott told reporters between the first set of practices for Saturday’s Senior Bowl all-star game. “So if I wake up with that feeling in my stomach that this is the right way to go for our organization and, conversely, if I wake up with the feeling that we can't get to where we're trying to get to with what we currently have in those spots, and that was the case as related to the offensive line and the special teams situation.”
Although McDermott said the Bills were “still going through the process” of finding a new receivers coach, he was quick to offer unsolicited praise for Hall, who has been on the staff since McDermott’s arrival in 2017.
“We certainly like Chad and what Chad’s been able to do for us over a small amount of time,” McDermott said. “We value his experience. He’s off to a good start so far, but we have not made any decision going forward at this point.”
The firings of Castillo and Crossman took significant coaching experience from the Bills that Johnson and Farwell don’t replace.
Johnson has only been an assistant offensive line coach in the NFL. It was a role he filled with the Indianapolis Colts in 2018 and in his first job in the league, with the Bills, in 2010 and 2011.
Asked if he had any concern over Johnson’s lack of experience as a position coach, McDermott said, “Not necessarily. Bobby's been around the league a long time. He's coached the offensive line in college. He's been an assistant O-line coach in the league, he's coached tight ends in the league as well and a lot of times those positions are connected, the tight end position and the O-line position.”
McDermott also pointed out that Johnson is a student of the game.
“He embraces the growth mindset,” McDermott said. “You spend five minutes with him and you're able to connect rather quickly on what type of guy he is and the type of teacher he is. We went through an extensive interview process with Bobby and I thought he did a phenomenal job.”
The head coach noted that in studying Johnson’s background, he was more than satisfied with the feedback he received.
"You do your research like you try and do with everyone and you make calls, you talk with people, talk with people that know people,” McDermott said. “And everyone I came across, as related to the topic of Bobby Johnson, was that first and foremost, he's a good person. And then he's a good football coach. And that came from various sources I felt good about.”
McDermott acknowledged the Bills took “a little bit of a leap of faith” with Farwell, given that he has only been an assistant special teams coach the past three seasons — last year with the Carolina Panthers and in 2016-17 with the Seattle Seahawks.
Farwell is only five years removed from being a reserve linebacker and special teams standout for the Minnesota Vikings (2005-10) and Seahawks (2011-14). He was a Pro Bowl special-teamer with the Vikings and won a Super Bowl with Seattle.
“We decided to go with a young guy with great energy,” McDermott said. “And with that we take a little bit of a leap of faith that he's going to continue to grow and learn and, in this case, we can grow our own.”
McDermott inherited Crossman, who had been on the staffs of the Bills’ previous two head coaches, Rex Ryan and Doug Marrone. After ranking among the best in the NFL under Crossman, the Bills’ special teams saw a sharp decline in 2018, especially in kick coverage.
Meanwhile, the Panthers’ special teams held opponents to only 406 kickoff return yards last season, which was fourth in the league. In 2017, the Seahawks had 1,004 yards in kickoff returns and one return for a touchdown, good for second in the NFL.
“I like the energy he brought to the interview, I like the thirst for knowledge and taking advantage of situations,” McDermott said of Farwell. “He’s been around some very good special teams units and coaches in his career. You watch what Heath did with (special teams coordinator) Chase Blackburn in Carolina. And so we did our research there as well and talked to a lot of people. It could have come from anywhere, it didn't have to be Carolina.
“But just the people we knew around the league that knew Heath. Albeit he was a young coach, he was experienced beyond his years because he did play a number of years and he's a guy that studies the game. Listen, we were all young at one point and someone gave us an opportunity. It's what you do with it. And I think, to this point, whether it was his playing career or, to this point, his coaching career, he's done a lot with us.”
McDermott addressed other topics:
On Josh Allen spending a second offseason working with Southern California-based quarterback guru Jordan Palmer. “We respect and trust what Jordan does out there and, certainly, understanding Josh’s relationship and trust with Jordan. I think that relationship is a good one and it’s important that they work with the right people. We’ll be in touch with Jordan and make sure we’re synced up there as much as possible in terms of terminology, technique — things that we feel like he needs to work on and so on and so forth. And Josh already went out there equipped with much of that when he left Buffalo.”
On the Bills signing veteran linebacker Lorenzo Alexander to a one-year contract extension. “That was big for us and I credit (General Manager) Brandon (Beane) and Lorenzo for being able to come together on that and get that thing done and get it done early for us, so we can move onto other things. And then Lorenzo can know where he’s going to be this year for his family. His leadership for our organization is big. It’s big for me and big for our team ... we know the position flex he has. He plays linebacker, he plays up front, he has impact on special teams. And when you look at the impact of losing Kyle (Williams to retirement), that’s a tough guy to replace. I don’t think you’re ever able to replace Kyle Williams. But a guy like Lorenzo, who’s been around Kyle, who has his own way of doing things, his own personality and his own leadership style in his own right will be invaluable for us.”
On whether the fact five of the Bills’ eight draft picks last year, including Allen, played in the Senior Bowl was more than a coincidence. “I don’t know, it may just be coincidence. But it certainly helps when you can get around these guys early on in the process. And Brandon and his staff do a great job, with (assistant GM) Joe Schoen, of really teeing it up for us here and then again at the combine when we get a chance to get around these guys for the first time. They’ve really watched them all season. This is where I had my first look last year at (cornerback) Taron Johnson, a little bit at Josh, although I had studied Josh a little bit before heading to Mobile last season. That’s where I took down (defensive tackle) Harrison Phillips for the first time in a meeting room (with a wrestling move) among many times (smiling). But it was a great opportunity for us to be around some of those guys early on last year.”
On being able to focus on more positions than quarterback this year as opposed to last year. “That took a lot of time just as you go through it. We wanted to get that position right. We want to get every position right, but sometimes you get heavy in one area and you can spend a lot of time in one area and then you kind of neglect the other areas. We were able to come out of last year’s draft with not only that quarterback position, but a number of other players we felt good about at this point, some that we got from this game. We feel a little bit freed up this year to spend a little bit more time in other areas as well. We took a number of trips last season. We’ll see what we do this offseason with respect to the scouting process.”